Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 81 (Part 1)

Psalm 81

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 2-3 [1-2]); 11QPsd (vv. 5-11 [4-10]; MasPsa (vv. 2-17 [1-16])

This Psalm has a curious hybrid character: part hymn, part prophetic oracle, and a composition that may have had a place in the Israelite liturgy for the celebration of the festivals (esp. Passover, cf. the discussion below). Like other of the Asaph Psalms that we have recently examined, Ps 81 appears to have a northern provenance (indicated by the Israel/Joseph pairing in vv. 5-6).

There is a definite two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause marker serves as a legitimate structural indicator. The first part (vv. 2-8) is a hymn to YHWH, functioning as a call to worship. Within this framework, the historical tradition of the Exodus provides the setting for the prophetic oracle that follows in the second part (vv. 9-17). The words of YHWH begin at v. 6b, and this fact has led commentators, incorrectly I believe, to treat vv. 6b-17 as a coherent division of the Psalm; it is the Selah marker the provides the correct structural point of division, as noted above.

Metrically, this Psalm follows the typical 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are a few exceptions (which will be noted). The heading gives the musical direction tyT!G]h^-lu^, as in Pss 8 and 84; the term tyT!G] could refer to a type of instrument (perhaps a harp), or to a particular melody (or mode).

Psalm 81 is one of the best attested Psalms among the Dead Sea manuscripts, including a MS from Masada where it fully represented. All of the manuscripts are quite fragmentary, however it is perhaps worth noting that there are no variant readings of substance in the portions of the text that are preserved.

As with all of Pss 7383, this composition is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph. The second half of this Psalm is presented as a prophetic oracle, and, as we have seen, a number of the Asaph-Psalms have certain prophetic features; for more on Asaph, and the tradition that he and his descendants were prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50).

PART 1: Verses 2-8 [1-7]

Verse 2 [1]

“Ring out (praise) to (the) Mightiest, our Strength,
give a shout to (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The opening couplet is a call to worship, calling on the people to sing/shout praise to YHWH. The basic religious and theological principle is that YHWH is the God (Mighty One) of Israel (Jacob); as a result, He is considered as the ultimate source of their strength (zou) and protection. The suffixed word “our strength” is a bit unusual, and it is possible that here the noun zou connotes “stronghold”. Dahood (II, p. 263) reads parallel construct expressions in both lines (i.e., “Mighty [One] of…”) and treats the final <– of <yh!l)a$ as an interposed enclitic <-; in such a case the expressions would, indeed, be parallel: “Mighty (One) of our strong(hold) / Mighty (One) of Jacob”.

Verse 3 [2]

“Lift up music and give (it on the) tambor(ine),
(on the) sweet lyre (together) with (the) harp.”

The call to worship continues with this direction for the people to take up their instruments, in order to sing out praise to YHWH (as directed in v. 2). They are to “lift up” their music (hr*m=z]); curiously, the regular term (romz+m!) designating the Psalm as a musical composition is absent from the heading of Ps 81. The adjective <yu!n` means “sweet, pleasant”, here referring to the sweet sounds that can be produced on the lyre and harp.

Verse 4 [3]

“Blow (the) horn on the (day of the) new (moon),
on the full (moon), for (the) day of our festival.”

The call to worship continues, with the praise being located at the time of a public festival. The term gj^ came to designate the great pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover and Sukkot. Here the timing of the festival coincides with the beginning of the month—the expressions “new (moon)” (vd#j)) and “full (moon)” (hs#K@) are obviously parallel, marking the transition from one month to the next. The Exodus context of vv. 6-11 suggests that the festival in question is Passover.

Verse 5 [4]

“For this (is) an engraved (decree), O Yisrael,
an edict from (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob.”

This couplet refers specifically to celebration the festival (gj^) mentioned in v. 4. If the context is the celebration of the Passover, then the solemn declaration here would be particularly appropriate (cf. the instructions and tradition regarding Passover in Exodus 12). The order to celebrate the festival is here treated as an edict or decree sent down by a king (YHWH), using the terms qj) (denoting something engraved or written) and fP*v=m! (a decision given down by a ruling figure which has the force of law).

This verse demonstrates the wide range of meaning that attaches to the simple prepositions l= and B=. Here, the first prefixed –l is best treated a vocativel (“O Israel”), though most translators render it flatly as “for Israel”; the vocative better fits the context of a call to the Israelite people to praise YHWH and celebrate the festival. The second –l clearly refers to the decree as coming from YHWH, though it also possible to translate the preposition in this instance as “belonging to”.

Verse 6ab [5ab]

“(As a duty to be) repeated He set it on Yôsep,
in his going out (from) upon (the) land of Egypt.”

The term tWdu@ is parallel with qj) and fP*v=m! in v. 5, referring to the command by YHWH to celebrate the festival; the context here would seem to require that Passover is the festival in view. According to the tradition(s) recorded in Exodus 12, the directions for celebration of Passover were given at the time of Israel “going out from the land of Egypt”.

The noun tWdu@ fundamentally refers to something which is repeated; I take it to be used here with this basic emphasis, referring to the regular/repeated celebration of the Passover festival.

The use of the preposition lu^, in the context of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, is peculiar; one would rather expect /m! as in many other such references (e.g., here in v. 11 of this Psalm). As noted above, many of the Hebrew prepositions have a wide semantic range, and lu^ can occasionally carry a meaning something like “from” in English (cf. Dahood, II, p. 264). Other commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) translate it here as “against”, but this does not seem appropriate (or correct). I have slanted my translation slightly, to capture the idea of the Israelite people going out from the place where they had been—viz., living upon (or spread over) the land of Egypt.

Verse 6c-7 [5c-6]

“(The) lip of (one) I did not know I heard,
(and) I turned aside his shoulder from (the) load,
and his hands passed over from (the) basket.”

There is an abrupt change of speaker at the third line of verse 6, and it immediately becomes clear that YHWH is now speaking; thus the Psalm shifts to become an oracle, with the Psalmist functioning as a prophet. The setting of the Exodus, introduced in 6b, provides the impetus for this brief but dramatic recounting of YHWH’s role in the Exodus events.

It is, I think, best to treat v. 6c together with v. 7 as a tricolon. It presents a clear narrative progression:

    • God hears Israel’s cry for help =>
      • He responds and takes away the burden =>
        • The people become free from their service/labor

It may seem strange that YHWH would refer to Israel as “(one) I did not know”. This could be an allusion to the sequence in Exodus 2:23-25: the people cry for help in their bondage, and the cry comes up to God, who hears it; the cry prompts Him to remember the covenant He established with Israel’s ancestors (Abraham/Isaac/Jacob). Then in v. 25 we read: “And (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and the Mightiest knew (them).” This was the moment when God truly knew Israel as His people.

Verse 8 [7]

“In the (time of) distress you called and I pulled you out;
I answered you (from with)in (the) hiding (place) of thunder,
(and yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife.”

The oracle continues with a second tricolon that further summarizes the events of the Exodus (cf. vv. 6-7 above). The first two lines here may simply be repeating the general idea of Israel’s cry for help and YHWH’s answer; however, I think it probable that the scene has shifted to the more specific setting of the episode at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), where the people cried out to God (14:10), and He answered them, through the hand of Moses (vv. 13-14ff). The reference to “the hiding (place) of thunder” is an allusion to the storm-theophany, applied to YHWH as Creator and heavenly Ruler, with his control over the waters; for more on this ancient cosmological imagery, expressed with some frequency in the Psalms, cf. my earlier article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. His power over the Sea allowed Israel to escape from Egypt. The thunder-motif, with the theophanous cloud as a ‘hiding place,’ also alludes to the scene at mount Sinai (Exodus 19ff).

The implied reference to the waters of the Reed Sea is paralleled by the reference, in the final line, to the episode at the “waters of strife/Merîbah [hb*yr!m=]” (cf. Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:10-13). Dahood (II, p. 265) is almost certainly correct in his assessment that injba needs to parsed as a passive (Niphal) form with dative suffix (of agency)—i.e., “I was tested by you”. This act of faithlessness by the people is meant as a stark contrast with the faithfulness of YHWH in answering them and rescuing them from their bondage in Egypt (lines 1-2). My translation above brings out this contrastive emphasis: “…(yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife”.

This ending of the Psalm’s first half, on a negative note highlighting the people’s lack of trust in God, sets the stage for the second half (vv. 9-17), in which YHWH, in another prophetic oracle, brings forth a complaint (in the tradition of the ‘covenant lawsuit’) against His people for their lack of loyalty and trust.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80

Psalm 80

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another lament-Psalm (cf. the previous study on Ps 79), in which the Psalmist, representing the people (the righteous/faithful ones), prays to YHWH for deliverance. Dahood (II, p. 255) describes this Psalm as belonging “to the last days of the Northern Kingdom,” and this is almost certainly correct. From the opening verses, it is clear that the focus is on the northern territories. They have apparently been ravaged, but not yet completely conquered. The aftermath of the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.) would provide an appropriate setting. Readers of a certain traditional-conservative mindset may find such an historical context troubling, since it would seem to imply that the Psalmist’s prayer was not answered by YHWH—at least as regards the fate of the Northern Kingdom. However, this in no way invalidates the prayer as an expression of faith and hope. The righteous will be protected by YHWH, even in exile, and their descendants will eventually be restored to the Land.

The structure of Psalm 80 is defined by the repeated refrain, calling on YHWH to “return” (vb bWv Hiphil stem) to His people and save them. It seems better to view the refrain as representing the opening call for each stanza. I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Vv. 2-3—Invocation to YHWH on behalf of the northern tribes
    • Vv. 4-7—Stanza 1: Lament to YHWH
    • Vv. 8-14—Stanza 2: Illustration of the Vine
    • Vv. 15-19—Stanza 3: Prayer to YHWH
    • Verse 20—Concluding refrain

This is the eighth in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50. The meter of Psalm 80 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format.

The musical direction in the heading matches that of Psalm 60 (cf. the earlier study), as a poem sung to an existing melody—the melody in this case being <yN]v^ov, “lilies” (cf. also Pss 45 and 69). The poem is also designated as an tWdu@, usually translated “testimony,” but properly referring to words that are to be repeated. In Ps 60, the indication is that there is a didactic purpose to the poem, which is “to be taught” (dM@l^l=), much like the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32; however, such a purpose is not as clear here for Ps 80. Perhaps the idea is that, even after the original historical context of the poem had passed, it was still useful for instruction, as a lesson for the people.

Invocation: Verses 2-3

Verses 2-3a [1-2a]

“O Shepherd of Yisrael, give ear,
(you) leading Yôsep like the flock;
sitting (between) the kerûbs, shine forth
before (the) face of Eprayim, [Binyamin] and Menašše!

These are the first two of the three couplets that open the Psalm, functioning as an invocation to YHWH, with the Psalmist calling on God to hear (lit. “give ear” to it) and answer his prayer. The needed response involves an action on behalf of the Israelite people, to save and protect them; this is described in terms of YHWH “shining (forth)” (vb up^y`, Hiphil stem). The theme of YHWH as a herder, guiding and protecting his people (as a flock/herd), was featured in the three previous Psalms (77:20; 78:52-53, 70-71; 79:13); it is a traditional motif, best known from Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). It is through YHWH’s manifest presence among the people, symbolized by his sitting on/above the Golden Chest (Ark) as his ‘throne’ (with its winged kerubs), that He guides Israel.

The northern focus is indicated by the pairing of Israel and “Joseph” = the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Psalmist’s prayer represents the northern tribes (i.e., the northern kingdom), pleading to YHWH on their behalf. The ravaging threat of the Assyrian military is presumably in view; as noted above, historical setting of the Psalm may be the aftermath of the campaigns by Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.).

The 3-beat meter would be preserved by omitting “Benjamin” from the final line, which is otherwise too long; this would also provide a cleaner parallel with “Joseph” in the first couplet. As there is no textual basis for omitting “Benjamin”, I have retained it in brackets above.

Verse 3b [2b]

“May you rouse your strength,
and come to (bring) salvation for us!”

This couplet is also irregular (2+3), and provides a more direct plea to YHWH for salvation. The call is for God to “awaken” (vb rWu I), i.e., to rouse Himself from ‘sleep’ (i.e., inaction). The implication is that He should act on behalf of His people, using His great might/strength. This means providing a military defense (and victory) that will save the Northern Kingdom from the Assyrians.

Stanza 1: Verses 4-7 [3-6]

Verse 4 [3]

“O Mightiest, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!

As noted above, this refrain begins each of the three stanzas (see vv. 8, 15), being repeated again in the final verse (v. 20). The wording varies slightly in each instance; thus, one should not be too quick to fill out the first line here (i.e., “Mighty [One] of the armies”), even though this would produce a more consistent 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The 2+3 meter of the verse as it stands (in the MT) matches that of the previous v. 3b.

The call is for YHWH to “return” (vb bWv) to His people. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem could be understood in the transitive sense of “make us return”, i.e., “restore us”, in which case it would be possible to read the Psalm as post-dating the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In the initial invocation (cf. above), this returning is described through the idiom of YHWH fulfilling His role as Herdsman of His people, guiding and protecting them (from all threats). The idiom of YHWH “shining” forth (here, lit. “giving light”, roa Hiphil) also was introduced in the invocation (vb up^y` Hiphil). The motif of God’s “face” implies His protective presence, but also the manifestation of His anger—viz., against the enemies of His people (who are also His enemies).

Verse 5 [4]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies—
until when will you smoke (in anger)
at the prayer of your people?”

This verse is slightly irregular, and I treat it here as a 3+2+2 tricolon. The full expression “YHWH Mighty (One) of (the) armies” here perhaps explains the shortened form in v. 4 (cf. above), so as to avoid cumbersome repetition. The “armies” (toab*x=) refers to the heavenly/celestial entities, which YHWH created, and which do His bidding. They function as soldiers under His command, who fight on behalf of His people Israel. For references in the tradition of the celestial bodies (and other forces of nature) fighting for Israel, see, e.g., Josh 10:10-11; Judg 5:20-21; the storm-theophany applied to YHWH, has a strong militaristic emphasis, and is part of the same broad tradition (frequently in the Psalms, 18:10-14; 77:17-18; 144:5-6, etc). The more common expression is “YHWH of (the) armies”, which may preserve the original verbal force of the Divine name, i.e., “(the One) causing the (heavenly) armies to be” (i.e., creating them); cf. Cross, pp. 68-71.

In the refrain of v. 4, the implication is that YHWH’s anger (i.e., His “face”) should burn against Israel’s enemies, rather than against His own people. But here in verse 5 it is clear that, at least recently, His anger has been “smoking” (vb /v^u*) against Israel, presumably alluding to attacks by the Assyrians on the Northern Kingdom. Instead of smoking against their prayers, the Psalmist asks that God would answer their prayers (in favor of them), and burn/smoke with anger against Israel’s enemies.

Verse 6 [5]

“You have made them eat (the) bread of tear(s),
and made them drink tears three (times over).”

The suffering of the people is clear from this couplet, utilizing the traditional ancient Near Eastern motif of eating/drinking tears (cf. Psalm 42:4[3]; 102:10[9]) as a expression of extreme sorrow; this motif occurs, for example, in the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet VI, col. 1, lines 9-10, “she is sated with weeping, drinks tears like wine”). The final word vyl!v* presumably means “three (times over), threefold” (or possibly “three times [a day]”); however, Dahood (II, p. 257) suggests that the word may be related to Ugaritic ¾l¾, thus referring to a bronze/copper bowl or container (i.e., drinking a bowl full of tears).

Verse 7 [6]

“You have set us as strife for (those) dwelling by us,
and (those who) are hostile to us mock at us.”

The noun /odm* typically denotes some kind of fighting or strife, which fits the parallelism of Israel’s neighbors (“[those] dwelling [near]”) being hostile (vb by~a*); for a different explanation of /wdm, cf. Dahood, II, p. 257. Presumably, the mocking of Israel by her neighbors is a response to the Assyrian attacks, which have ravaged the Northern Kingdom and greatly reduced its status. Those hostile to the Israelites would naturally take advantage of the situation to mock and belittle them still further.

According to the MT, the suffixes in v. 6 are 3rd person plural, while those here in v. 7 are 1st person plural. This shift, it would seem, reflects the Psalmist’s identification with the people, functioning as their representative in prayer to YHWH. Most commentators follow the minority reading of the MSS (along with the LXX), Wnl* (“at us”) rather than the majority text oml* (“at them”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Stanzas 2 and 3) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 78

Psalm 78

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsb (v. 1); 11QPsd (vv. 5-12); 4QPse (vv. 6-7, 31-33); pap6QPs (vv. 36-37)

This lengthy Psalm (the second longest of the Psalter) is a didactic poem based on Israel’s history—focusing primarily on the Exodus and the wilderness journey. In this regard, it is similar to Pss 105106 and 136, which also present an extensive historical summary in poetic form. However, the stated purpose of Ps 78, with its call to obedience, and for the use of the poem in teaching the generations to come, this Psalm resembles the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy (chap. 32)—though that poem is, by all accounts, a much older composition. The narrative description in Deut 31:19-22, regarding the purpose of the “Song Moses”, corresponds broadly to vv. 1-8 of the Psalm (discussed below).

The contrast between Ephraim (i.e., the Northern Kingdom) and Judah that frames the poem (vv. 9ff, 68ff) suggests a dating for the Psalm (at least in its original form) in the period between 922-721 B.C. The lack of any obvious reference to the Exile, even for the Northern Kingdom, would seem to indicate a time of composition prior to 721 B.C.; however, many commentators would assign a much later date to the Psalm (cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 290-3). The importance of this Psalm (cf. below), as well as its length, increases the likelihood that it was subjected to a substantial process of edition/redaction, perhaps over a number of centuries. Some possible points of editing will be discussed in the notes.

The relative importance of Psalm 78 is indicated by its central position among the Asaph-Psalms (7383), as well as in the Psalter as a whole. A Masoretic marginal note at v. 36 marks that verse as the midpoint of the entire Psalter (its 2,524 verses); a variant tradition in the Talmud (b. Qid. 30a) makes the same claim for v. 38 (counting 2,527 verses); cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 285. There are numerous points of similarity in theme and vocabulary among the Asaph-Psalms, which are particularly notable in relation to Ps 78 (because of its length). For a fine survey of these points, including the similarities between Pss 78 and 77 (cf. the prior studies), see Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 293-4. On the figure of Asaph, see the earlier studies on Pss 50 and 73.

Psalm 78, in spite of its extreme length, is one of the simplest in its poetry, relatively easy to read, and generally lacking in textual or poetic difficulties. It is one of the most prosodic of all the Psalms, due primarily, it would seem, to the historical content—rooted so firmly to the narrative traditions of Israel—and its didactic purpose. Its simple poetic language and style makes it well-suited for teaching to children and the general population. The Psalm follows a standard three-beat (3+3) couplet format throughout, with but few exceptions.

There is no clear defining structure for Ps 78—either thematic or poetic—apart from the opening section (vv. 1-8) that declares the poem’s purpose. One way of dividing the Psalm uses the repeated references to the people’s disobedience—in vv. 17, 32, 40, 56—as structural markers. This yields five strophes, the last two of which conclude with short sections referring specifically to YHWH’s guiding/leading His people like a shepherd (vv. 52-55, 70-72). For a slightly different division, building upon the work of earlier scholars, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 282-5, 290-2.

The heading refers to this Psalm as a lyK!c=m^; on the possible meaning and significance of this term (used also in the Asaph Psalm 74), cf. the earlier study on Ps 32.

Verses 1-8

Verse 1

“Give ear, O my people, to my instruction;
extend your ear to (the) sayings of my mouth.”

The opening lines are reminiscent of the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1)—an ancient poem with a similar expressed purpose (in its Deuteronomic context, 31:19-22) to that of Ps 78. The Psalmist functions here as a prophet, speaking as YHWH’s representative in addressing the people. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, and on the prophetic character and features of certain of the Asaph-Psalms, cf. the earlier studies on Ps 50 and 7377.

Verse 2

“I will open up my mouth with a parable,
(and) will pour out riddles from (times) before.”

The Psalmist states that he will begin his discourse (“open my mouth”) with a lv*m*. The term refers to a saying or story, etc, that describes one thing as being like (lvm) another—i.e., a similitude or parable. Beginning with this parable, his mouth will “pour out” todyj!. The noun hd*yj!, in its basic meaning, covers a wide range of enigmatic sayings or questions; often the term seems to denote a “riddle” or a “puzzle”. In what sense does the Psalm proper (beginning with verse 9) constitute a parable or set of riddles? Presumably, the main idea is that the people should learn from the example of an earlier generation, understanding their own situation as being in the likeness of that which took place in times before (cf. on verse 8, below). The enigmatic sayings (todyj!) then refer to the individual couplets of the Psalm, which spin out, in poetic form, the parabolic narrative from times past.

Verses 3-4a

“(That) which we have heard and known,
and (which) our fathers recounted to us,
we will not hide (it) from their sons,
recounting (it) to the circle following:”

It is possible to read verse 3 syntactically as part of v. 2—i.e., “…riddles from (times) before, which we have heard and known…”. However, it is just as likely that the relative pronoun at the beginning of v. 3 looks ahead, referring to the traditional content, described in vv. 3-4, specifically, that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Verses 2 and 3 are related conceptually, if not syntactically; the Psalmist is giving creative poetic expression (parable/riddles) to the traditional accounts of the Exodus (and other events in Israel’s history). The noun “sons” (<yn]B*) in v. 4 (line 1) means children—or, properly, descendants—in a more general sense; the second line makes clear that this refers to the circle/cycle (roD) of people that comes after (i.e. the next generation[s]). Verse 4 expresses the people’s intention (collectively) to be faithful in teaching their children the lessons of the past.

Verse 4b

“(the) praise(worthy deed)s of YHWH and His strength;
and (the) wonderful (thing)s that He has done.”

Verse 4b makes clear what it is that the faithful ones (represented collectively by the Psalmist) will recount (rps) to their children. The narrative is not simply the mundane history of Israel, but an account of the wondrous deeds performed by YHWH. The noun hL*h!T= in line 1 properly refers to a shout (of praise, etc); the things YHWH has done for His people in the past are, quite literally, “something to shout about,” being praise-worthy deeds. These deeds, mighty and miraculous, demonstrate His power and strength (zWzu$). The miracles surrounding the Exodus are particularly in mind.

Verse 5

“For He made stand a witness in Ya’aqob,
and instruction He set (with it) in Yisrael,
which He commanded our fathers
to make them known to their sons.”

The “witness” (tWdu@) is a traditional record and recounting of what YHWH has done—an account which can be repeated for each generation. Along with this witness, God provided “instruction” (hr*oT, torah) for His people. Both of these He commanded to the people (“our fathers”) that they should make them (both) known to their children.

Verse 6

“For (this) reason:
(that) the circle (coming) after would know,
(that) sons (who) are born would stand up
and recount (it) to their (own) sons.”

The purpose of the witness and the accompanying Instruction (Torah) is so that each generation would be taught, and the people thus would remain faithful to YHWH from one generation to the next. The meter and structure of this verse is irregular, and does not fit the pattern of the Psalm particularly well. The secondary and redactional character of v. 6 has been suggested (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 287). Again, I translate roD literally as “circle” (or “cycle”), though the word typically refers to the people alive during a particular cycle (of time)—i.e., a “generation”, in our common parlance; that is certainly the meaning here.

Verse 7

“And (so) they might set their hope on (the) Mightiest,
and not forget (the) deeds of (the) Mighty (One),
and (also) keep watch (over) His commands.”

The meter of this verse is also irregular—a 3+3+2 tricolon. Lines 2 and 3 refer again to the witness (of YHWH’s deeds) and the accompanying Instruction (“His commands”), respectively. The noun ls#K# in line 1 has a peculiar range of meaning; based on the cognate root in Arabic, the fundamental denotation seems to involve being “thick”, from which are derived both the negative meaning of “dullness” (i.e., stupid, foolish) and positive meaning of having “firmness” of trust or hope. Here the positive meaning of ls#K# is in view (i.e., trust in God), though it is also possible that the negative sense of the word is being anticipated as well—viz., the repeated theme of the people’s foolish disobedience, which begins in v. 9.

Verse 8

“And (then) they would not be like their fathers,
a circle being obstinate and rebellious,
a circle (that) has not set firm its heart,
(for) its spirit was not firm with (the) Mighty (One).

The theme of the people’s disobedience, developed throughout the poetic narrative of the Psalm, is introduced here, at the conclusion of the opening section. The idea of the Psalm as a lv*m* (“likeness”, v. 1, cf. above) is somewhat explained here: the example-narrative from Israel’s past is provided so that the current generation (roD) might not end up being like (K=) those who rebelled against YHWH in times before (the generation of the Exodus, etc). The concept of faithfulness toward God is expressed, in the second couplet, through the motif of “firmness”, utilizing two roots:

    • /WK (line 1)—verb in the Hiphil stem, meaning “set firm, fix (firmly) in place”; here it refers to the heart (bl@) of the people, i.e., they did not set their heart firmly in place, so as to remain faithful to YHWH.
    • /m^a* (line 2)—verb in the passive Niphal stem, referring to the nature/character of the people in their spirit (j^Wr); they did not set their heart firmly toward obeying God, because they were not firmly devoted to Him in their underlying spirit; i.e., their faithlessness was intrinsic to their character and identity (as a wicked and faithless generation).

*    *    *    *    *    *

Due to the length of Psalm 78, the remainder of its verses (vv. 9-72) will be discussed over a series of daily notes.

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 77 (Part 1)

Psalm 77

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (v. 1); 11QPsb (vv. 18-21 [17-20])

This Psalm has a definite two-part structure. The first half (vv. 2-11) is a lament, in which the Psalmist makes his suffering and distress known to YHWH. In the second half (vv. 12-21), the author/protagonist shifts to praise of God, focusing on the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people) in times past. This emphasis, found in a fair number of Psalms, has two functions, at the literary level: (1) it is intended to spur God to act in a similar way in the present, and (2) it provides comfort and encouragement to the people, so that they might trust that once again YHWH will exercise His power on their behalf.

It is possible to outline a more detailed structure to the composition. See, in particular, the analysis by Beat Weber (Psalm 77 und sein Umfeld: Eine poetologische Studie [1995]), followed by Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 273-6), which divides the Psalm into five strophes, with vv. 17-20 representing an older/archaic (cosmological) poem that has been included within the final strophe. I will be noting these divisions below. The turning point of the structure, in any case, is the difficult and ambiguous verse 11.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which two exceptions: (a) the irregular meter at the beginning (vv. 2-3), and (b) the tricolon format of the cosmological poem in vv. 17-20.

As with all of Pss 7383, this musical composition (romz+m!) is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph (cf. the earlier study on Ps 50). The term /Wtydy+ (or /WtWdy+), which also occurs in the heading to Pss 39 and 62 (cf. the earlier study), is apparently associated with the figure of Yedutun, a priestly (Levitical) musician who served in the Tent/Temple during the reigns of David and Solomon. His descendants continued the line of tradition, and the term here may designate a specific musical style.

PART 1: Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Strophe 1: Verses 2-4
Verse 2 [1]

“My voice to (the) Mightiest—so I cry out;
my voice to (the) Mightiest—so may He give ear to me.”

The lament portion of the Psalm begins with an irregular (3+4) couplet, that may express, poetically, the burden felt by the protagonist. Many commentators and translators would add a verb to fill out the initial phrase in each line—i.e., “my voice (goes out) to the Mightiest”; however, I feel a precise literal rendering (“my voice to the Mightiest”) helps convey a sense of the urgency that the Psalmist feels. My translation treats the w-conjunction as emphatic, giving dramatic effect to each line. The Psalmist’s focus in his prayer (and plea) to YHWH is that God will hear (and answer) him.

Verse 3 [2]

“In (the) day of my distress, I search (for) my Lord;
my hand poured forth in the night,
and did not grow numb,
(yet) my soul refuses to be comforted.”

The meter of this verse is highly irregular; an initial 4-beat line is (apparently) followed by a 3+2+3 tricolon. Kraus (p. 113) suggests that the word hl*y+l^ (“at night”) should be eliminated, as overloading the line; this would lead to a more consistent (4+4+3 tricolon) structure for the verse. However, the day/night contrast is fitting, even though “in the day (of)” here has the more general sense of “in the time when…”. Lines 2-4 expound the Psalmist’s statement from line 1—i.e., how he “searches for” God in the time of his distress. This searching (vb vr^D*) extends all through the night. The idiom of the Psalmist’s hand (“my hand”) being “poured out” (vb rg~D*) may seem a bit odd; probably here “hand” (dy`) simply connotes “strength” —that is, the Psalmist pours out his plea to YHWH with all of the strength he has at his disposal (i.e., in his “hand”). He keeps this up all through the night, and does not slacken (lit. “grow numb,” vb gWP); even so, his soul gains no comfort from his effort.

For a very different way of explaining these lines, cf. Dahood, II, p. 225-6.

Verse 4 [3]

“I set my mind to (the) Mightiest, and I groan;
I go over it (in my mind), and my spirit grows weak.”

This 3-beat (3+3) couplet establishes the metrical pattern for the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 4-16, 21). It develops the idea of the Psalmist “pouring out” all the strength he has in him. He purposely “sets his mind” on YHWH, praying intently to Him. The verb rk^z` is usually translated “remember”, but should properly be understood in its broader meaning of mental activity, i.e., putting one’s mind to something. The verb j^yc! has a comparable meaning, but with the more intensive (and iterative) sense of “going over” something in one’s mind (repeatedly). The idea of the Psalmist’s soul finding no comfort is here paralleled by his spirit becoming weak (vb [f^u* III). For all of his devotion to God, the protagonist feels no ease or help coming from YHWH in his time of distress.

The Selah-pause marker after verse 4 supports the view that vv. 2-4 represent a distinct strophe, or unit, within the Psalm (cf. the introduction above).

Strophe 2: Verses 5-7
Verse 5 [4]

“Watching takes hold of my eyes;
I am thrust (about) and cannot speak.”

The theme from vv. 3-4 (cf. above) of the Psalmist’s restless night continues here. The MT vocalizes the initial word tzja as a second person verbal form (T*z+j^a*, “you take hold [of]”), which, while appropriate to the thematic context of the Psalmist praying to God, is out of place here in the first half of the Psalm. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 227) in reading it as a passive participle, referring to the “watching” (plur.) that “takes hold” of the Psalmist’s eyes. This is probably a roundabout of saying that he cannot sleep; but the root rmv also can indicate an intentional night-time vigil (i.e., “keeping watch”). The feminine noun hr*m%v= occurs only here in the OT, and is typically translated (somewhat dubiously) as “eyelid”.

The verb <u^P* may be denominative from the noun <u^P^ (“foot, step,” cf. Dahood, II, 227). In all the other occurrences (Gen 41:8; Judg 13:25; Dan 2:1, 3), it is used in reference to a person’s “spirit” (j^Wr) being troubled or disturbed; in the Daniel references, the person is unable to sleep, which is presumably the same situation being alluded to here. In this light, Dahood would understand the verb rbd as deriving from the root denoting being back/behind, rather than the one denoting “speak”. He notes the cognate tadabara in Ethiopic (“to lie on one’s  back”), and understands the same meaning here—viz., “I cannot lie down”.

Verse 6 [5]

“I think on (the) days from (times) before,
(the) years of distant (time)s I bring to mind.”

The parallelism of the couplet, along with metrical concerns, would seem to require that the first word of MT verse 7 (hr*K=z+a#, “I bring to mind”) be included with v. 6. The same verb occurred in v. 4 (cf. above). The protagonist is specifically putting his mind on the “days before” and the “distant years” past; this establishes the context that will dominate the second half of the Psalm—viz., the mighty deeds performed by YHWH, on behalf of His people, in times past.

Verse 7 [6]

“(I play) my strings in the night with my heart;
I go over (it), and my spirit searches (it) through.”

By including the first word of MT verse 7 as part of v. 6 (cf. above), both verses now yield consistent 3-beat couplets. Again, the theme of the Psalmist’s restless night-time vigil, from vv. 3-4, is continued here, utilizing some of the same basic imagery, including the verb j^yc! (denoting going over something in one’s mind), and the verb cp^j* (parallel with vr^D*, meaning “search out”). As is fitting for the Psalmist, his meditation takes on a musical form—playing a song on the harp or lyre with his heart. The MT reads a suffixed noun (“my string[s]”, or “my stringed-music”); Dahood would parse this as a form of the related verb (“play/pluck [on strings]”), but the meaning is essentially the same, in either case.

There is no Selah-pause marker in the MT at the end of this strophe, to match those following vv. 4 and 10.

Strophe 3: Verses 8-10
Verse 8 [7]

“Will my Lord reject (us) into (the) distant (future),
and not continue to show (us) favor any more?”

Here, the context established in verse 6, alluding to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people) in times past, comes to a point with this pained and almost despairing question. Compare the opening of Psalm 74 (cf. the earlier study). This parallel may indicate an exilic setting here for Psalm 77 as well. In any case, the Psalmist’s personal distress is representative of the suffering of the people (collectively). It may even indicate that the fervent prayer and meditation of his night-time vigil is focused on the deliverance of God’s people as a whole. This is certainly the focus that dominates the second half of the Psalm.

The verb jn~z` (“reject, repel”) occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms (10 of the 20 OT occurrences), e.g., 43:2; 44:10, 24; 60:3, 12; 74:1, being a natural part of the vocabulary in the Psalms of lament. Here it is contrasted with the verb hx*r* (“be pleased [with], show favor [to]”).

Verse 9 [8]

“Has His kindness gone away to (the) end?
Has (the) showing (of it) ceased for cycle and cycle?”

The meter of this couplet is slightly irregular (3+4), as in verse 2 (cf. above), and may be an expression, in poetic terms, of the burden felt by the Psalmist. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) is a fundamental term, used frequently in the Psalms, where it almost always connotes the idea of faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant).

In the second line, I treat the noun rm#a) in relation to the rudimentary meaning of the root rma (“show”), rather the more common and conventional meaning “say”, though the latter is certainly possible here—i.e., referring to YHWH’s communication (speaking) with His people. Yet, I do think that the principal idea here is how YHWH shows His goodness/loyalty to His people through mighty and wondrous acts.

I typically render the noun roD according to the fundamental meaning “circle, cycle”; though here it could be understood in its more conventional sense of an “age” (i.e. cycle of time) or “generation” (the people living in a particular age/cycle). Here the temporal aspect (cycle of time) is primary.

Verse 10 [9]

“Has (the) Mighty (One) forgotten (how) to show favor,
or has He gathered up all His love in (His) anger?”

In the concluding question to this strophe, the Psalmist raises two possibilities: (a) God has forgotten how to show favor (/n~j*, parallel to hx*r* in v. 8), or (b) He has simply gathered together all of his love (toward His people) and anger has taken its place. The noun <j^r^ refers to a deep-seated feeling of love toward another, manifested by caring compassion (like that of a mother for her child). The plural is comprehensive of this loving care and compassion. It is contrasted with the noun [a^, in the general sense of “anger” (i.e. the emotion), rather the more concrete physical idiom of the smoking/flaring of nostrils or the burning of one’s face.

Thematically, verse 11 [10] belongs to the first half of the Psalm; however, poetically, according to the proposed strophic structure, it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13), which I will discuss in the next study (Part 2).

It is possible to treat verse 11 as either another question (continuing those of the previous strophe), or as a declarative statement by the Psalmist. The context (though not necessarily the syntax) suggests another fearful question:

“And I said ‘My sickness—(is) it (due to)
(the) changing right hand of (the) Highest?'”

This will be discussed further in the notes to Strophe 4, in the next study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 74 (Part 1)

Psalm 74

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

Psalm 74 is a lament-Psalm, written from the standpoint of the Israelite (Judean) people and nation as a whole. The first half of the composition (vv. 1-11) is a lament over the destruction of the Temple, and thus is likely to have been written in the 6th century B.C., sometime after the Temple’s destruction (in 586), though it would have been applicable as a hymnic prayer all throughout the Exile and into the post-Exilic period. The second half of the Psalm (vv. 12-23) consists of an appeal to YHWH to redeem and deliver His people.

This is the second of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*)—on whom, cf. the previous studies on Pss 25 and 73. The composition is designated as a lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), a term used also in the headings of Pss 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 78, 88-89, 142. For a discussion of the possible meaning and significance of this term, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, but tends to follow a 4-beat (4+4) couplet format.


Verse 1

“For what, O Mightiest, should you be indignant to the end,
(and) your nostril(s) smoke against (the) sheep of your pasture?”

The lament begins, appropriately, with the interrogative expression hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?”, i.e., “why…?” The conquest of Jerusalem, with the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the population, makes it seem that YHWH has rejected His people (Israel/Judah) completely (lit. “to the end,” jx^n#l*). The verb jn~z` has the basic meaning of being repelled or disgusted by something, which a person then casts aside. I have rendered it above as “be indignant (toward something)”, which well suits the burning/fire motif in the second line.

The noun [a^, often translated flatly as “anger,” should be understood here in the concrete anthropomorphic (and zoomorphic) sense of “nostril(s)”. The smoke (vb /v^u*) coming from YHWH’s nostrils is a vivid sign of his anger; it also evokes the burning destruction of the city (and Temple). Often the specific image is of nostrils burning or ‘flaring’, like the snorting of an angry bull.

Frequently, YHWH is depicted as a shepherd, with His people as the sheep, or flock (/ax)). The shepherd-motif connotes the care, protection, and guidance which God gives to His people (cf. especially the famous Psalm 23).

Verse 2

“Remember your assembled (flock) (that) you acquired (long) before;
may you redeem (with the) staff your inheritance, mount ‚iyyôn,
this (mountain) on which you have dwelt.”

To the relatively regular 4-beat (4+4) couplet format (established in v. 1), an additional 3-beat line has been included here in v. 2, forming a tricolon. The shepherd/sheep motif should be understood as continuing in v. 2; thus the general noun hd*u@ (“crowd, assembly, congregation”) reflects the people as an assembled flock. The religious-cultic connotation of hd*u@, however, should not be missed—viz., the Temple precincts as the principal location where the nation gathers (to worship).

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to remember His people, whom He acquired (vb hn`q*, cf. Exod 15:16; Deut 32:6; the verb can also mean “create” [Gen 14:19, 22]) as His own, long before (<d#q#), in the past. It is thus proper that God should redeem (vb la^G`) His people from their servitude (in exile); I follow Dahood (II, p. 200) in reading the perfect form of the verb as a precative perfect, in parallel with the imperative in the first line. God redeems His people, delivering them out of danger, and leading them (back to pasture) with his shepherd’s staff (fb#v@, cf. Ps 23:4).

The redemption of His people entails restoring and re-establishing Jerusalem (spec. the Temple-Palace locale of Zion) as the “mountain” on which He will once again dwell, with the people, as He did in the past.

Verse 3

“Lift high your (foot)steps, to (the) desolate places far off,
all the evil (the) hostile (one) has done in your Holy (Place).”

The theme of Zion as YHWH’s mountain-dwelling—the local (ritual) representation of His cosmic Mountain—introduced at the end of v. 2, continues here, with the call for God to “bring/lift up high” (vb <Wr, Hiphil) His footsteps (i.e. to mount Zion). The noun <u^P^ refers to the beat of footsteps, probably intended to evoke the military imagery of an army of soldiers on the march. Dahood’s quite different explanation of iymup (II, p. 201) is intriguing, but not entirely convincing.

The Temple precincts, as well as the entire locale of the Zion hilltop-site, has been turned into “places of desolation” (toaV%m^) by the conquering forces (i.e. the Babylonian military) that “did evil” (vb uu^r* Hiphil) in the “Holy (Place)”. The use of vd#q) makes clear that the destruction of the Temple is primarily in mind. The noun jx^n#, denoting an end goal (cf. the expression jx^n#l*, “to the end”, in v. 1), should probably be understood here as something seen from a distance, from far off; as YHWH marches to Jerusalem, to redeem the Zion, the “desolate places” of the destroyed city can be seen on His approach.

Verse 4

“(Those) hostile to you roared in the midst of your place of assembly,
setting (up) their signs (as evil) signs.”

Here the participle rr@x) (plur.) is essentially synonymous with by@oa in v. 3 (cf. above); both mean “one being hostile”. The conquering Babylonians are “hostile” to YHWH in two respects: (1) they were hostile to YHWH’s people (and His holy city), attacking it; and (2) they are idolatrous worshipers of other deities. The “place of assembly”, i.e., where the people assemble (to worship God), refers to the “holy (place)” in v. 3—the Temple and its precincts.

The redundancy in the second line, repeating the plural noun tota) (“signs”), have led to commentators toward various emendations of the text (cf. Dahood’s slight emendation that redivides the MT, II, p. 201f). However, it may be that the Psalmist is simply utilizing a bit of wordplay involving the word toa, which, like the corresponding “sign” in English, can refer to an actual physical/material marker, as well as (conceptually) to the significance of something. I take the meaning of the line to be that the conquering army set up their signs (i.e., banners, etc), which served as signs (indicators) of the evil they were doing.

Verses 5-6

“(This) was made known like (those) bringing up
axes in the thicket of (the) wood;
and (so) {they cut down} (all) her doors at once,
with hatchets and hammers they broke (them) down.”

These lines are highly problematic, as virtually all commentators recognize. The verses are likely corrupt, to some extent, especially in the first line of v. 6. As every proposed emendation is both speculative and far from convincing, the best approach is probably to keep as close as possible, however tentatively, to the MT as it has come down to us. Sadly, the Psalm is not preserved among the Qumran manuscripts, so there is no help to be found from that front.

The basic image seems clear enough: the conquering army broke down the Temple building (its doors, etc) like men who cut down trees (with the axe) in a thick forest. I follow the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus; cf. Dahood, II, p. 202) in vocalizing hyjwtp as h*yj#t*P= (“her openings”, i.e. her doors) instead of MT h*yj#WTP! (“her carvings”). The many doors and wooden parts of the Temple were “cut down” (?) and “broken down” (vb <l^h*) with hatchets and hammers, etc.

Verse 7

“They cast your Holy Place in the fire, (burning it) to the earth,
(and so) they profaned (the) dwelling-place of your name.”

After the cutting down of the doors, etc, of the Temple building, the conquering army burnt it to the ground “in the fire”; cf. the allusion to this fiery destruction with the reference in v. 1 to the “smoke” coming from YHWH’s nostrils. The use of the verb ll^j* (II) in the second line echoes the earlier expressed idea of the conquerors as “doing evil” in the Temple sanctuary, and also of their being “hostile” to YHWH. The root llj (II) generally seems to denote a violation of what is sacred—in this instance, desecrating and profaning the holy dwelling-place (/K^v=m!) of God. On the Temple sanctuary as specifically the dwelling-place for YHWH’s name, cf. 2 Sam 7:13; 1 Kings 5:5; 8:16ff, 43ff; 9:3, 7; 2 Kings 23:27; Jer 7:10ff, 30, etc.; on the Deuteronomic origins of this theme, cf. Deut 12:5ff; 14:23-24; 16:2, 6, 11.

Verse 8

“They said in their heart, ‘Let us subdue them as one,
let all (the) assembles of (the) Mighty (One) in the land be burned!'”

This is another difficult couplet, largely due to the difficulty in parsing MT <n`yn] in the first line, and also the form of the verb [r^c* (“burn”) in the second line. They idea seems to be that conquering army has the desire to completely subdue the entire nation, and to destroy every sacred site where people worship (lit. “places of assembly”). This reflects, again, the theme of the Babylonians’ hostility toward both YHWH and His people.

The MT <n`yn] is probably best understood as reflecting a first person plural imperfect (cohortative) form of the verb hn`y` (“oppress”); but cf. Dahood, II, p. 202 for a different approach. I do follow Dahood in vocalizing wprc as a passive form (Wpr*c%), with jussive/precative force, “let them be burned”.

Verse 9

“Signs (among) us we no (longer) see,
there is not any more a spokesman (of YHWH),
and not (among) us (anyone) knowing ‘until wh(en)…'”

There are no longer any great wonders or portents (“signs,” cf. on v. 4b above) among the people, nor is there any ayb!n` (inspired spokesperson or ‘prophet’), i.e., one who speaks as YHWH’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. There is thus no one who can assure the people how long the exile will last—i.e., when it will end (“until wh[en]”, hm*-du^). All of these things are indications that God is no longer present and active among His (exiled) people, at least not in the way that He once was. It is a restoration of the old way that the Psalmist has in mind when he speaks of YHWH redeeming (v. 2) His people; the restoration entails a return of the people to the land, and a re-establishment of Zion/Jerusalem as the holy city of God.

Verse 10

“Until when, O Mightiest, shall (the) adversary scorn (you)?
Shall (the) hostile (one) despise your name to the end?”

The implicit question (“until wh[en]…?” hm*-du^) at the end of v. 9 is picked up at the beginning of v. 10, more precisely as yt^m*-du^ (“until when…?”). The wicked adversary, the “hostile one” (rx* / by@oa, cf. the same parallel terminology in vv. 3-4), has shown open scorn (vb [r^j*) to YHWH, despising (vb Ja^n`) His name (cf. above on v. 7), particularly in the way that they desecrated and destroyed the Temple. Yet the conquest and destruction was so total, leaving the land desolate, with the people exiled, that one might truly wonder if this situation might indeed last “to the end” (jx^n#l*, cf. verse 1). “Until when (i.e. how long)” will this continue? The very question anticipates the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH in vv. 12-23.

Verse 11

“For what do you turn back (from us) your hand,
(and) your right hand from near your bosom <withold>?”

The lament of vv. 1-11 concludes just as it began (cf. on v. 1 above), with the interrogative hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?” (i.e., “why…?”). The Psalmist asks why YHWH does not give help to his people, acting on their behalf, to restore/redeem them from out of their exile. The dual-image here reflects this idea vividly:

    • God turning back (vb bWv) His hand
    • and of holding back (vb al*K*) His right hand

The parallelism is quite clear, and would seem to require reading the verb al*K*, instead of hl*K* (MT hL@K^) in the second line; this slight emendation of the MT seems justified, and is supported by commentators such as Kraus (p. 96). To this idea of YHWH withholding His hand is added the picturesque detail of keeping it back near His own bosom; we might depict it as keeping His hands folded on His lap.

In the plea that follows in vv. 12-17ff, to be discussed in the next study, the Psalmist hopes to spur God to action on behalf of His people.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 73 (Part 1)

Psalm 73

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a Wisdom-Psalm—that is, a Psalm in which wisdom-elements and theology dominate the composition. We have seen throughout these studies how many Psalms have been strongly influenced by wisdom-tradition; by all accounts, this influence is relatively late, with evidence that wisdom-tradition helped to shape the redaction of certain poems, as those Psalms were edited for use in the Community worship. The particularly heavy Wisdom-emphasis in this Psalm likewise suggests a relatively late date, perhaps in the 5th century. Linguistic and thematic similarities with the book of Job have been noted (cf. the article by J. Luyten, “Psalm 73 and Wisdom,” in Maurice Gilbert, ed., La Sagesse de l’Ancient Testament, Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium 51 [Peeters: 1979], pp. 58-91). Cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 225-6.

Another possible indication of a relatively late date is the highly regular meter, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The few exceptions to this consistent rhythm will be noted.

This is the first of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*). According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22. On the association of Asaph with prophecy, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

Structurally, Psalm 73 is best seen as comprised of three sections, each of which begins with the affirmative particle Ea^, usually rendered as “surely” or “truly”. In the first section (vv. 1-12), the Psalmist’s initial expression of trust in the goodness and faithfulness of YHWH is put to the test by his recognition of the injustice that seems to prevail in the world. This reflects a perennial Wisdom-question: how can a righteous Creator God allow injustice to flourish in His creation? Here, in particular, the Psalmist focuses on how the wicked seem to enjoy success and prosperity, in spite of their wickedness. The flip-side of this theme involves the affliction and suffering of the righteous, as it occurs often at the hands of the wicked. The suffering of the righteous is not specifically emphasized, but the idea is surely implicit throughout. This is part of the righteous-wicked contrast, a fundamental Wisdom-element that occurs frequently in the Psalms. The wicked, flourishing in their injustice, are vividly described in these verses.

In the second section (vv. 13-17), the Psalmist shows how he struggles to make sense of this basic contradiction, regarding the prevailing presence of injustice in the world and the prosperity of the wicked. The answer is given in the final section (vv. 18-28), focusing on the ultimate Judgment (in the afterlife and/or the end-time), when YHWH will finally make right what He had left undone during the lifetime of the wicked (and the righteous).


Verse 1

“(See) Truly, (how) He is good to Yisrael,
(the) Mightiest, to (the) pure of heart.”

Commentators have long suggested emending MT la@r*c=y]l= (“to Israel”) to la@ rv*Y`l^ (“El to the upright”); this would yield the following (admittedly appealing) parallelism:

“Truly, (the) Mighty (One) is good to the upright,
(the) Mightiest to (the) pure of heart.”

However, the ancient versions follow the MT, which argues strongly in its favor. Dahood (II, p. 188) reads the prefixed –l as a vocativel (i.e., “O, Israel”), which would certainly be fitting to the opening line of the Psalm, with its communal setting. By retaining the MT, the couplet establishes the dual-aspect for God’s people—i.e., the people Israel, but specifically the holy/righteous ones of the people, designated here by the expression “pure of heart” (bb*l@ yr@B*). If rv*y` (“straight, upright”) is read in the first line (cf.  above), then the religious-ethical emphasis would be even more clear.

Verse 2

“Yet (as for) me, but a little did my feet turn aside,
with no (strength), they poured out (in my) steps.”

The precise syntax of this couplet is problematic, mainly due to the verb forms in each line, for which there are Masoretic (kethib/qere’) variants. It is also one of the few metrically irregular verses (4+3 couplet) in the Psalm, expressing, in poetic terms, the near stumbling of the protagonist.

With the initial pronoun (yn]a&, “I”), the Psalmist identifies himself as being among the righteous Israelites, those who are “pure of heart”. And yet, something has very nearly (“according to a little [bit],” fu^m=K!) caused his feet to bend/turn (vb hf*n`) from the path. The negative/privative particle /y]a^ (with the prefixed preposition K=) at the start of the second line should probably be understood in the sense of “as with no (strength)” —i.e., his legs/feet were suddenly without any firmness or strength as he stepped. His legs “poured out” (vb Ep^v*) like water under him in his steps (rV%a^ plur.). Dahood (II, p. 188) suggests that the h– ending of the verb form hk*P=v% (kethib) represents the archaic third person feminine dual/plural ending, which would correspond to the the plural yr*v%a& (“my steps”).

Walking straight, with feet firmly planted on the ground, is a basic religious-ethical idiom for upright behavior and conduct. What was it that nearly caused the Psalmist to stumble and stray from the path? He describes this in verses 3ff that follow.

Verse 3

“For I was (made) jealous by the boasting (one)s,
(when the) well-being of (the) wicked I saw,”

The particle yK! here has explanatory force, describing the reason why the Psalmist nearly stumbled from the right path (cf. above). He became jealous (vb an`q*) of those “boasting”. The verb ll^h* II literally means “shout,” in a negative (arrogant or boastful) sense. The participle indicates regular behavior that characterizes such people (i.e., boasting/boastful ones); here it is a characteristic of the wicked, cf. also 5:6[5]; 10:3; 49:7[6], 14[13]; 52:3[1], etc.

The Psalmist is particularly provoked to jealousy and envy when he sees the well-being of the wicked. In spite of their wicked ways, they seem to have considerable prosperity and success, happiness, etc, in this life. The noun <olv* properly means “fullness, completeness”; in English idiom, we would perhaps translate it here as “a full/complete life”; for poetic concision, I have rendered it more generally as “well-being”. Quite possibly, the wicked are boasting specifically of their prosperity and well-being.

Verse 4

“that there are no struggles for them—
full and fat, (indeed, is) their strength!”

I view verse 4 as a continuation of the thought in v. 3; the initial particle yK! thus has a slightly different emphasis than in v. 3. The well-being (<olv*) of the wicked is manifested by their lack of any struggles. The exact derivation and meaning of noun hB*x%r=j^ is uncertain; the only other occurrence is in Isa 58:6 where it is used parallel to the idea of a heavy burden, and of the yoke that is placed on a beast of burden. Dahood (II, p. 189) would relate it to Ugaritic —ƒb (“slay”, or, more generally, “fight”); cp. Hebrew bx@j*, “cut, hew, dig”. In any case, the basic idea seems to be that the wicked, in their prosperity, are free from burdensome labors, which I have generalized in my translation (following Dahood) as “struggles”.

Most commentators are in agreement that MT <t*oml= (“in their death” [?]) needs to be separated and revocalized as <T* oml* (“for them / complete”). The adjective <T* (“complete”) relates conceptually to the noun <olv* (“fullness, completeness”) in v. 3. Because they are free from burdensome labor, their physical strength (lWa), and their earthly life as a whole, is “full” (<T*) and “fat” (ayr!B*).

Verse 5

“Nothing of the toil of humankind is there (for) them,
and with mankind(‘s trouble) they are not touched.”

The syntax of this couplet is a bit awkward (I have tried to capture something of this in my translation), but it clearly gets across the idea, from v. 4 (cf. above), that the wicked, in their prosperity, are relatively free from the toil and trouble that burdens other (less fortunate) people—that is to say, most of humankind. The noun lm*u* (“hard work, labor, toil”) in the first line should be read as implicit in the second line as well.

Verse 6

“Thus (an evil) exaltation adorns their neck,
(and) a covering of violence is set for them.”

In their prosperous strength, the wicked are spurred on to (further) wickedness and acts of injustice (against others). A prideful exaltation (hw`a&G~) adorns their neck (denom. verb qn~u*, from qn`u&, “neck[lace]”), and a garment of violence (sm*j*) covers their body. The syntax of the second line is rather difficult to translate; literally it would read: “a setting of violence is a cover(ing) for them”. I have reworded this slightly, so as better to capture the idea of a garment of violence being put (root tyv) around their body. Here the idea of wickedness is clearly connected with the image of worldly wealth and luxury (expressed through clothing and jewelry, etc).

Verse 7

“Their eyes (stand)ing out (whit)er than milk,
(the) images of (their) heart go (yet) beyond.”

For the first line, I tentatively adopt the vocalization of the MT proposed by Dahood (II, p. 189), reading the infinitive ax)y` (“going out”), and vocalizing bljm as bl*j*m@ (“from milk”), with the preposition /m! in the comparative sense of “(more) than”; as a comparison of beauty, cf. Gen 49:12; Lam 4:7. The brightness/whiteness of the eyes of the wicked can perhaps be understood as expressing two aspects of meaning: (a) a vibrancy of physical health and beauty, and (b) eyes wide open alluding to a covetous desire for riches and the things of this world. The latter aspect is suggested by the second line, describing how the heart of the wicked, within them, imagines still more things; the verb rb^u* literally means “go/cross over”, perhaps in the sense of going further—i.e., in one’s desire for wealth and luxury, etc.

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) would emend omn@yu@ (“their eyes”) to omn`ou& (“their guilt”). However, this is inappropriate; body parts are emphasized throughout vv. 6-9, and thus it is fitting to focus on the eyes of the wicked, especially as a parallel with the ‘inner’ vision of the “heart”.

Verse 8

“They bring mocking and speak with evil (tongue);
(indeed,) oppression from on high they speak.”

The impulse and desires of the heart (v. 7) leads the wicked to speak evil (ur^). The verb rb^D* (“speak”) is used twice, once in each line, for double-emphasis. They begin with mocking (vb qWm) and end with more serious abuse against others, bringing oppression (qv#u)) from their lofty position (“on high,” <orm*).

Verse 9

“They (even) set their mouth against the heavens,
and their tongue goes against the (whole) earth.”

The motif of the high/exalted position of the wicked in v. 8 leads to the idea that they even speak (“set their mouth”) against the heavens. The motifs of daring to exalt oneself to heaven, and of speaking against God Himself, are features of the “wicked tyrant” motif in Old Testament and Jewish tradition; for more on this, cf. Part 1 of my study on “The Antichrist Tradition”.

Here the preposition B= has the specific sense of “against”; however, it is not as clear that this is intended in the second line (i.e., “against the earth”) as well. Possibly, the idea of “going about in (i.e. throughout) the whole earth” is intended, just as it is said of the Satan in Job 1:7; 2:2 (“going about in it”). However, I think the overriding theme of the wicked acting in an abusive and oppressive manner favors the sense of speaking “against” in both lines.

Verse 10

“So (the) people turn back this way (to) them,
and waters of (the) full (sea) are brought to them.”

This is a difficult couplet; the first line, in particular, is problematic, and may be corrupt. Dahood (II, p. 190) would emend MT oMu^ byv!y` (“his people return” [?]) to Wub=c=y] (“they filled/satisfied [themselves”) + enclitic <– suffix. This would certainly fit the theme in v. 9, of the mouth/tongue of the wicked extending out to encompass the heavens and the earth.

If the MT is at all correct, then presumably the first line relates to the oppressive character of the wicked. Through their power and position, they are able, acting unjustly, to compel people to behave a certain way. As a result, people “turn back” to the wicked, providing a measure of service to them on their behalf. One is reminded of the influence the evil Sea Creature (and his servant the Earth Creature) has on the peoples of earth in the book of Revelation (chap. 13). The image of  the “waters of the full (sea) [?]” is likely intended as a general (and comprehensive) metaphor for the worldly wealth that has come to the wicked.

Verse 11

“And they say, ‘How can (the) Mighty (One) know?’
and ‘Is there (any) knowledge in the Most High?'”

The exalted position and arrogant thinking of the wicked even leads them to question the knowledge of God. Probably this question should be understood, at another level, in terms of the principal Wisdom-question posed by the Psalm: viz., how can the righteous Creator allow injustice to prevail on earth, and allow the wicked to prosper? Does God even realize what the wicked are doing? The idea that the wicked might think their deeds are hidden from God is expressed relatively often in the Old Testament; for examples of this motif elsewhere in the Psalms, cf. 10:11; 94:7. Yet, again, the Wisdom-focus of the Psalm also raises the question, even for the righteous, of whether YHWH sees (and knows) what the wicked are doing; if He does see, then why does He not punish the wicked?

Verse 12

“See, these (are the) wicked (one)s;
forever at rest, they increase (in) strength.”

The Psalmist ends his description of the wicked with this declaration: “these (are the) wicked (one)s”. The problematic Wisdom-question addressed by the Psalm is summarized in the final line. The adjective wa@v* means “at rest,” and thus the wicked are characterized by those who are “at rest” (vv. 4-5, cf. above). The noun <olu* presumably is used in the typical sense of the “distant (future)”; to avoid cluttering the translation at this climactic point, I have rendered it in the more figurative (and dramatic) sense of “forever”. However, the alternate interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 191) merits consideration. He understands wa@v* (and the root hl*v* I, “be at rest”) in the negative of sense of being careless/heedless; when used in combination with <olu* as a Divine title (i.e., Eternal One), the line would read:

“heedless of the Eternal (One), they increase (their) strength”

This reading certainly accentuates the Wisdom-question of the Psalm. How can the wicked ignore/neglect YHWH, and yet still prosper, increasing in wealth and worldly power? In the second and third parts of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study), the author begins to provide an answer to this question.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 72 (Part 1)

Psalm 72

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is a prayer for YHWH’s blessing on the king. Many of the Psalms evince a royal background, but this is one of the few that is clearly focused on the Israelite/Judean king. Needless to say, in its original form it must be pre-exilic in date, having been composed during the Kingdom-period. The heading reads hm)l)v=l!, similar to the designation dw]d*l=, etc. In the Davidic references, the prefixed –l preposition presumably indicates authorship (i.e., “[belonging] to David”); however, the context here suggests that the word-phrase should be rendered “for Solomon”, or “(relating) to Solomon”. If the Psalm was composed within Solomon’s royal court, then the prayer-wish of the composition may indeed have been intended for (i.e. on behalf of) Solomon. If it was written somewhat later in the Kingdom-period, then the prosperous and relatively peaceful reign of Solomon would be serving as the ideal for future kings. The Israelite Kingdom reached its pinnacle during Solomon’s reign, and a natural prayer for every subsequent royal court would be that those glory days might return again.

The Psalm may be divided into two parts. In the first part (vv. 1-11), the Psalmist calls on YHWH (unconditionally) to establish a peaceful and prosperous reign for the king; the cosmic dimensions of this idealized vision alludes to the Israelite kingdom at its peak (under Solomon). It is natural that, with the exile and the end of the Judean kingdom, this vision would be given a Messianic and eschatological orientation.

In the second part (vv. 12-19), the prayer is framed in conditional terms. If the king rules with justice, then YHWH will give him a long and prosperous reign, establishing a royal dynasty of rulers among his descendants.

The meter of Psalm 72 is irregular, but tends to be more consistent within the smaller poetic units (cf. below)


The first part of the Psalm can be divided into three smaller units—vv. 1-4, 5-7, and 8-11.

Verse 1

“O Mightiest, give your just (ruling)s to (the) king,
and your right (decision)s to (the) son of (the) king.”

In this opening couplet, the prayer is that YHWH (referred to by the <yh!l)a$ of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms) will give to the king a divinely inspired (or endowed) ability to judge, acting with justice and making decisions with sound judgment. The second person suffix (;-, “your”) on the plural nouns <yf!P*v=m! and toqd=x! shows that the Psalmist is describing Divine attributes, characteristics of YHWH Himself (as King and Judge), which would be given to the Israelite king so that he might rule in a manner that reflects God’s own justice and righteousness. The plural noun forms are a bit difficult to translate. The noun fP*v=m!, “judgment”, refers to a just decision made as part of the governmental (and/or judicial) process. The feminine noun hq*d*x=, usually translated “righteousness”, has a similar meaning; the related noun qd#x# refers to “right(eous)ness” in a more general sense. The plural, unless it is meant comprehensively, should be understood in terms of “right decisions” or “right rulings”.

The prayer extends to the king’s son—that is, to the prince and future ruler. This anticipates the conditional prayer-wish for a royal dynastic line, in the second part of the Psalm (v. 17).

Verse 2

“He shall judge your people with rightness,
and your oppressed (one)s with justice.”

Again, the roots qdx and fpv are paired in this couplet, referring to the action of the king in ruling. The prayer is that he will faithfully exercise the gift (of right/sound judgment) given to him by YHWH (v. 1). Here, the act of judging is expressed by the verb /yD! which is quite close in meaning to fp^v*. I have translated the noun qd#x# in its basic meaning as “rightness”, and fP*v=m! correspondingly as “justice”. The imperfect verb form here (and throughout the first part of the Psalm), could perhaps be translated as jussives, i.e., “may he judge…”; this certainly would reflect the precative prayer-wish tone of the Psalm.

As often in the Psalms, the righteous ones of God’s people are characterized as poor and oppressed, often using the yn]u*. However, here the emphasis is better understood as being on the aspect of social-justice—i.e., that the king would judge/rule rightly, especially (and all the more so) on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

The concision of this couplet (3+2) reflects the directness of the justice by which the king should rule, simply and fairly.

Verse 3

“May (the) mountains lift (up) wholeness to the people,
and (the) hills (rise) with rightness.”

There is a certain parallelism—formal and thematic—between verse 3 and verse 1 (cf. above). It has essentially the same irregular (4+2) meter, which could be parsed as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, except that doing so would disrupt the poetic syntax. It also expresses the idea of the Divine source of justice/right(eous)ness. The mountains/hills, in their majesty and exaltation, are traditional symbols of deity; more specifically, in the Canaanite religious/mythic tradition, shared by ancient Israel, the High Creator God (El-YHWH) dwelt upon a great cosmic mountain. This cosmic mountain could be identified, symbolically and ritually, with any number of local mountains or hills.

In order to match the imperative (“give…!”) in verse 1, I have translated the imperfect verb form here as a jussive (cf. above). The Psalmist’s prayer is that the entire land would be filled with justice and righteousness. The mountains are called upon, as servants of YHWH, to “lift up” <olv* to the people. The noun <olv* is typically translated “peace”, and that would certainly not be inappropriate here. However, the word more properly means “completion, fulfillment,” often in the basic sense of welfare or well-being. I have translated it above as “wholeness”.

Just as the mountains “lift up” peace and well-being, so also the hills ‘rise’ with righteousness (hqd*x=). Assuming that the prefixed –B= on hq*d*x= is correct, i.e., “in/with right(eous)ness,” one should perhaps understand an implicit verb in the second line; I have opted for the idea of the hills rising, which would match the concept of the mountains “lifting up”.

Verse 4

“He shall judge (for the) oppressed of (the) people,
he shall bring safety to (the) sons of (the) needy,
and shall crush (the one) pressing (them).”

Just as verse 3 is parallel to verse 1 (cf. above), so verse 4 is parallel to verse 2; and it allows us to view vv. 1-4 as a poetic unit within the first part of the Psalm. The meter is similar—a 3+2 couplet in v. 2, and a 3+3+2 tricolon in v. 4. Thematically, the verses also express comparable ideas, similar prayer-wishes by the Psalmist. The reference is to the act of judging by the king; here the verb is fp^v*, parallel to /yD! in v. 2. He will provide justice on behalf of the oppressed (adj. yn]u*, as in v. 2).

Frequently, in the Psalms, the adjective yn]u* is paired with /oyb=a# (“needy”), as it is here; cf. 9:19; 12:6; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18; 70:6, etc. The righteous are typically characterized as oppressed and needy, experiencing oppression from the wicked. If the righteous are oppressed, being pressed down (yn]u*), the one doing the pressing is referred to here by the participle qv@ou (vb qv^u*). In establishing justice for the poor and oppressed, the king will “crush” (vb ak*D*) their oppressor.

Verse 5

“May he (live) <long> with (the) sun,
and by (the) turning of (the) moon,
(each) cycle, (for) cycles (to come).”

The rhythmic shift, to a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, indicates that v. 5 marks a new poetic unit in this part of the Psalm. Thematically, also there is a shift to an emphasis on the length of the king’s reign. The first word in the MT is ;War*yy], “they shall fear you” (or “may they fear you”); however, the context strongly favors the reading of the LXX (sumparamenei=, “he shall remain along with”), which would seem to require emending the Hebrew to read ;yr!a&y~w+, “and he shall make long (his days)” (i.e., live long), or perhaps, alternately, Wkyr!a&y~w+, “they [i.e. his days] shall be long”. Many commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 75; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 203) support such an emendation, and it seems to be both warranted and well-founded. The king’s long life (and reign) will follow the sun and the moon (in its turnings), for many cycles (<yr!oD)—that is, for many months and years.

Verse 6

“He shall come down as rain upon (the) cut grass,
as abundant (shower)s dropping (on the) earth.”

The nature-imagery of v. 5 continues here in v. 6. From the length of the king’s reign, the focus shifts to its prosperity. The king shall bring prosperity to the land, just like the rain coming down on the grass, and the many drops of rain falling upon the ground. The noun zG@ refers to grass that is cut, which would indicate land that has been cultivated.

The meaning of [yz]r=z~ in the second line remains rather uncertain. It is usually understood as a verbal noun from the root [rz, which occurs only here in the Old Testament. Comparison with Aramaic and Arabic suggests a meaning of “drip, drop”, and this would seem to be confirmed by the LXX (sta/zousai, “dripping”). However, it is also possible that [rz is a variant form of brz, occurring in Job 6:17, where it refers to the ground drying up in the heat. If that is the sense here, then the second line would describe an abundance of rain upon the hot/dry ground. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 181.

Verse 7

“Righteous(ness) shall sprout forth in his days,
and abundance of wholeness,
until (the) failing of (the) moon.”

The just rule of the king will cause righteousness to sprout (vb jr^P*) from the watered ground (v. 6). The adjective qyd!x* in the Psalms typically characterizes the righteous person; however, the overall context here, as well as the parallel with <olv* in the second line, suggests the more general meaning of righteousness (i.e., that which is right). As in verse 3 (cf. above), qdx is paired with the root <lv; in both instances, I translate the noun <olv* as “wholeness”, in the basic sense of welfare and well-being for the people; the typical translation is “peace,” and that idea is certainly to be included as well.

The prosperity and justice/righteousness of the king’s reign shall last as long as the moon continues to give its light, reprising the imagery from v. 5. Indeed, we should regard vv. 5-7 as a distinct poetic unit within vv. 1-11.

Verse 8

“And may he rule (powerfully) from sea unto sea,
and from the River unto (the) ends of (the) earth.”

In verses 8-11, the third poetic unit of the first part of the Psalm, the emphasis is on the extent of the king’s rule. Whether or not the Psalm refers specifically to Solomon, the geographical extent of Solomon’s reign is certainly in view. However, as would be appropriate in a royal Psalm or hymn, the king’s reign is here extolled in even grander, cosmic terms—with the expressions “from sea to sea” and “unto the ends of the earth”. The active rule of the king is expressed by the verb hd*r*, which can carry the specific idea of stepping/treading upon a territory, so as to claim dominion over it as one’s own.

Again, there is a rhythmic shift at verse 8, to the more common Psalm-format of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 9

“Before his face shall bow (the) desert-dwellers,
and (those) hostile to him shall lick the dust.”

All people shall pay homage to the king, bowing (vb ur^K*) before him. This includes rough foreigners from the desert regions. Beyond this, all those who would be hostile to him, enemies of the king, will be forced to abase themselves, licking the dust in acknowledgement of his rule.

Verse 10

“(The) kings of Taršîš and (the) islands
shall return gift(s to him),
(the) kings of Šeba’ and Seba’
shall bring near fine gift(s).”

After the two 3-beat couplets of vv. 8-9, verse 10 consists of a pair of (parallel) 3+2 couplets. The gifts presented to the king are tributary in nature (specialized meanings of both hj*n+m! and rK*v=a#), recognizing the sovereignty (and superior position) of the Israelite kingdom. This certainly would have been the case, in many instances, during the reign of Solomon, where surrounding territories and kingdoms would have had vassal-status in relation to Israel.

Tarshish refers to the commercial/trading power of Phoenicia and the city-state of Tyre, with whom Israel (especially in the reign of Solomon) had strong ties. Similarly, the “islands” represents the commerce and trade that took place throughout the Mediterranean. The names Sheba’ and Saba’ refer to peoples and kingdoms to the (south)east, in Arabia.

Verse 11

“Indeed, all kings shall bow in homage to him,
(and) all nations shall give service to him!”

The grandiose vision of the Israelite king’s prestige, and the superior position of his kingdom, is expressed bluntly in this final couplet.

Again, it should be mentioned that virtually all of the imperfect verb forms in vv. 1-11 can be treated (and translated) as jussives—i.e., “may he…,” “let him…”. I have so translated the first such instance in each unit.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 3)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-24 (cont.)

Here is a reminder of the thematic outline of Part 2:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

For a discussion of verses 14-16, see the previous study.

Verse 17

“Mightiest, you have taught me from my youth,
and until now I have presented your wondrous (deed)s.”

In verses 14-16 (the opening lines of the second division), the Psalmist announces his praise of YHWH, in expectation that God will answer his plea for help. As in vv. 5-9ff, the protagonist affirms his lifelong devotion to YHWH, from his earliest youth (vv. 5-8) until his old age in the present (vv. 9ff). Here in verse 17, the focus is on his youth; the Psalmist’s faithfulness is shown both by the way that he has received God’s instruction (“you have taught [vb dm^l*] me”), and has extended this instruction to others. The latter aspect is described in terms of the Psalmist presenting to people (lit. putting in front of them [vb dg~n`]) an account of the “wonderful (deed)s” performed by YHWH. This verbal noun (al*P* Niphal participle) emphasizes action—i.e., wonderful things done by God. Such things include saving the righteous from their hostile adversaries. For the Psalmist, a presentation of YHWH’s wonders naturally takes the form of a poetic and musical composition.

Verse 18

“And (so) even until (my) old age and white (hair),
may you not abandon me, Mightiest,
until I should present your arm to (the) circle,
(and) your might to every (one who) shall come.”

As in vv. 9ff (cf. above), the focus turns to the Psalmist’s old age, which includes both the present and the years to come. The noun hn`q=z] indicates old age more generally, while hb*yc@ expresses the same through the vivid allusion to a person’s gray (or white) hair. It is in a person’s old age that one might naturally feel that God has abandoned him/her, as one is more prone to physical ailments and suffering, as well as being vulnerable to exploitation and attack from the wicked.

The second couplet follows the second line of v. 17, emphasizing how the Psalmist intends to continue putting an account of YHWH’s mighty deeds in front of people (again the verb dg~n` is used). God’s deeds are described here through a pair of singular nouns—u^orz+ (“arm”) and h*rWbG+ (“strength, might”)—i.e., things done by YHWH’s strong (and outstretched) arm (cf. Exod 15:16 for this ancient poetic idiom).

The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but has the more fundamental meaning of “a circle”, i.e., a circle of people present in a particular time and place. Dahood (II, p. 175) would explain roD here as a specific reference to the public assembly (of the righteous), the congregation in which the Psalmist declares his praise of YHWH. However, the final line would seem to allude to the idea of a group of people alive at a particular time (i.e., ‘generation’).

Verse 19

“And your righteousness, Mightiest, (is) unto (the) height(s),
(the) great (thing)s which you have done,
(O) Mightiest—who is like you?”

The great deeds of YHWH also reflect His hq*d*x=. This noun has the basic meaning of “rightness”, usually translated “righteousness”; however, in the context of the covenant, it also can connote faithfulness and loyalty, much like the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”). YHWH’s righteousness (and loyalty) extends to the “high place(s)” (<orm*), which is another way of referring to it specifically as a Divine (and eternal) characteristic. Throughout the Psalms, YHWH’s covenantal protection of the righteous is regularly expressed through the image of secure location situated on a high place.

Verse 20

“Though you made us see (time)s of distress,
(thing)s great and evil (for us),
you return (and) restore our life;
and (so,) from (the) depths of the earth,
you shall return (and) bring me up!”

I treat verse 20 as consisting of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an additional line in the first couplet (for dramatic effect) producing a 3+2+2 tricolon. The written MT (kethib) has first person plural suffixes on the verbs in the tricolon (i.e., “made us see…”) , but are marked as to be read (qere) as first person singular (i.e., “made me see…”). The singular suffix is probably to be preferred, as being more consistent with the context of v. 20 as a whole; however, the plural is arguably the more difficult reading, and should perhaps be preferred on that basis. The communal worship setting, alluded to in this part of the Psalm, may have influenced a scribal/redactional modification to the plural. On the other hand, the “mighty deeds” of YHWH, declared by the Psalmist, certainly would have included the many things done for Israel throughout the people’s history, thus making a communal reference appropriate in context.

Just as YHWH has rescued His people (the righteous/faithful ones) in times past, so He will also do for the Psalmist now in the present. This is the expectation of the protagonist—viz., that God will answer his prayer and deliver him from his adversaries. The reference to the “depths of the earth” alludes to a life-threatening situation—i.e., that the Psalmist faces the danger of death—though this language could also be used to describe the suffering and danger faced by a person more generally.

Verse 21

“You shall increase my greatness,
you shall surround and comfort me.”

Verse 21 is a rather curious (and short) 2-beat couplet. The idea of God increasing the Psalmist’s “greatness” may relate to the idea that his opponents’ attacks are of an accusatory and slanderous nature (cf. vv. 7, 10-11, 13)—that is, an attack on the protagonist’s reputation. In any case, it is not simply a matter of YHWH rescuing the Psalmist from danger, but of truly restoring him (and his reputation) in a public manner. Once restored, the protagonist will be further surrounded (vb bb^s*) by YHWH’s protection. The root <jn has the basic meaning of “breathing deep(ly)”, often in the sense of a sympathetic reaction to a person’s situation; here it probably has the more general meaning of coming close to a person, watching carefully over his/her condition, so as to bring help, comfort, or encouragement. For poetic concision (in a short 2-beat line), I have translated the verb <j^n` conventionally as “(give) comfort”. The imperfect verb tenses, as a continuation of the Psalmist’s plea/prayer to YHWH, have jussive force.

Dahood (II, p. 177) would vocalize ytldg as yt!l*d*G+, identifying it with Ugaritic gdlt, referring to a (female) head of large cattle. The expectation then is that YHWH will increase the Psalmist’s herd(s), specifically to allow for an increase in the sacrificial offerings that he will be able to present to God. The communal worship context, in this instance, assumes a Temple setting (v. 16).

Verse 22

“(Then) indeed I will throw you (praise) with string-instrument(s),
(praise for) your firmness, My Mightiest,
I will sing to you with (the) plucking (of the) harp,
(O) Holy (One) of Yisrael.”

In the concluding verses 22-24, the Psalmist again declares his intention to praise YHWH with music and song. Loosely, verse 22 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, though the poetic syntax is a bit awkward and uneven, and difficult to render literally into English. Overall, however, the meaning is clear and straightforward, as also is the parallelism of the couplets. In the first line of each, the Psalmist says that he will sing praise to God on a stringed-instrument—first, quite literally, on a “instrument of skin [i.e., gut/string]”, and second on a ‘harp’ the strings of which one “plucks”.

God is praised specifically for his “firmness” (tm#a#), meaning, principally, His faithfulness (and truthfulness/trustworthiness) to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people. The covenant also informs the use of the Divine title “Holy One [vodq*] of Israel”.

Verse 23

“My lips shall ring out, indeed, (when) I sing to you,
and (also) my soul, which you redeemed.”

The Psalmist will give full-voiced praise to YHWH; indeed, his lips will “ring out” (vb /n~r*), i.e., with a resounding cry. Such praise will come forth from deep within his soul, from the life which God has (or will have) ransomed (vb hd*P*) out of death and danger. Perhaps also the more concrete meaning of vp#n#, as “throat” (rather than “soul”), is intended here; this would make a fitting parallel with “lips” and would add to the idea of giving full-voiced (i.e., full-throated) praise to God.

Verse 24a

“Indeed, my tongue all the day (long)
shall utter (word of) your righteousness.”

This short couplet continues (and concludes) the Psalmist’s declaration of praise to YHWH. From the specific idea of (full-voiced) singing, in public, the sense shifts to a quieter scene of the protagonist muttering/murmuring (vb hg`h*) praise of God’s righteousness (hq*d*x=, cf. above) all throughout the day, even when by himself in private moments. For the righteous ones, such as the Psalmist, praise of God is a continuous and ongoing activity that is not limited to public times of communal worship.

Verse 24b

“(Oh,) that they may be put to shame,
that they may be humiliated,
(those) seeking evil for me!”

As in the First Part of the Psalm (cf. verse 13), the Second Part concludes with an imprecatory (curse) wish by the Psalmist for his wicked adversaries. He asks (God) that they be put to shame (vb voB) and humiliated (vb rp@j*), very much the same sentiments expressed in v. 13. Both parts end with the same words, referring to the Psalmist’s enemies by the expression “(those) seeking my evil [i.e. evil/harm for me]” (yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m!).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 2)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 1: Verses 1-13 (cont.)

For a discussion of verses 1-8, see the previous study.

Verses 9

“Do not cast me (away) in (the) time of (my) old age;
at (the) ending of my strength, do not leave me!”

In vv. 5-8, the Psalmist refers to how he has been faithful to YHWH since the time of his youth; now he calls on God to remain faithful to him in his old age (hn`q=z]). The three-beat couplet has a chiastic structure:

    • Do not cast me away [vb El^v*]
      • in the time of (my) old age
      • at the ending of my strength
    • do not leave/forsake me [vb bz~u*]
Verses 10-11

“For (those) hostile to me say (things) about me,
and (those) watching my soul, they plan as one,
‘(The) Mightiest has left him,
let us pursue and seize him,
for there is no (one) rescuing him!'”

The tone of lament from the opening verses returns here; the Psalmist laments his current suffering, and calls upon YHWH to rescue him from his hostile adversaries. These wicked people are characterized here by two substantive verbal nouns:

    • by~a*— “(the one)s being hostile to me” [yb~!y+oa]
    • rm^v*— “(the one)s watching my soul” [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)], that is, with evil/hostile intent

Dahood (II, p. 174) explains the verb rm^a* in line 1 as preserving the archaic meaning “see, watch” (as attested in Ugaritic), rather that the common meaning “say”. While this is possible, it would distort the close synonymous parallelism of the couplet:

    • “the ones hostile to me | speak…”
    • “those watching my soul | plan…(saying)”

Verse 10 is an irregular 4-beat couplet; verse 11 is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though it is perhaps better to separate out the initial word (as I have done above [some commentators would omit it]), and to read the verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The terseness of this rhythm reflects the harshness and directness of the opponents’ plotting. They seek to take advantage of the fact that the protagonist, in his old age and suffering, would seem to have lost God’s protection. They can pursue (vb [d^r*) and seize (vb cp^T*) him, because there is no one (else) around to “snatch” (vb lx^n`) him (i.e., rescue him) out of their grasp; the latter verb is used frequently in the Psalms to express the protection and deliverance YHWH provides to those who are (and remain) faithful to him. The opponents think that the Psalmist is no longer under this covenantal protection, but he makes his plea to YHWH on just this basis—that he has remained loyal to God throughout his whole life.

Verse 12

“Mightiest, do not be far away from me!
My Mighty (One), hurry to (give) me help!”

The Psalmist’s plea is expressed here, with a double-address to YHWH; probably the initial <yh!l)a$ should be seen as a substitution for the divine name YHWH (hwhy), such as occurs throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms. The negative “do not be far (away) [vb qj^r*]” is parallel with the positive “hurry [vb vWj]”, i.e., come near to give help. In the translation above, I treat yt!r*z+u#l= as a verbal noun (“to [give] me help”), but it might be more accurately rendered as “to (be) my help” —i.e., YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s help.

Verse 13

“They shall be ashamed, finished,
(the one)s accusing my soul,
shall be wrapped (in) shame and disgrace,
(those) seeking my evil [i.e. harm]”

As it stands, v. 13 is a 2-beat couplet followed by a 3+2 couplet; however, one suspects that a word may be missing from the first line, and that originally there was a pair of 3+2 couplets. In any case, the thought of the verse is clear enough, as is the parallelism of the couplets. Again the wicked are characterized by a pair of substantive verbal nouns:

    • /f^c*— “(the one)s accusing my soul” [yv!p=n~ yn@f=c)]
    • vq^B*— “(the one)s seeking my evil [i.e. harm]” [yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m=]

The imperfect verb forms in lines 1 and 3 (“they shall be…”) have jussive force, and could be translated as an imprecation: “let them be…!” Imprecatory (curse) wishes are frequent in the Psalms, however uncomfortable they may be for us (as Christians) reading them today.

Part 2: Verses 14-24

Verse 14

“But I, continually I will wait, (for you),
and will add (further) upon your praise!”

The Psalmist’s expression of trust here mirrors that in the opening of Part 1 (cf. on verse 1 in the previous study). In spite of his suffering, and the hostile attacks of his opponents, the protagonist continues to trust in YHWH. The verb used here is lj^y`, meaning “wait (for someone/something),” often with a connotation of hopeful expectation. The aspect of continuity is expressed in the first line with the adverb dym!T* (denoting extension); in the second line, the verb ps^y` (“add [to]”) can similarly have the adverbial meaning “continue to do (something)”. The focus of praise is, of course, appropriate as an expression of trust for a musician-composer like the Psalmist.

Verse 15

“My mouth shall recount your righteousness,
all the day (long), your saving (deeds),
though I cannot know (the) count (of them).”

Verse 15 builds upon the thought in v. 14, with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The final two lines expound the first, while the framing (first and third) lines involve a bit of wordplay on the meaning of the root rps (“count, number”). In line 1, the verb rp^s* (in the Piel) means “give account of” or “recount”, in the sense of declaring something, telling of it (e.g., in poem and song). However, the plural noun torp)s= in line 3 refers more concretely to the count or number of something—best understood in terms of the saving deeds performed by YHWH, represented in line 2 by the [collective] singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”). I follow Dahood (II, p. 174) in understanding the yK! particle in line 3 as having concessive force (i.e., “even though…”). The ironic sense of the wordplay is: the Psalmist will recount the saving deeds of YHWH, even though he is not able to count the sheer number of them.

Verse 16

“I shall come with (your) mighty (deed)s, my Lord [YHWH],
I shall cause your righteousness to be remembered, yours alone.”

The exposition of the Psalmist’s praise continues here, with the declaration “I shall come” (vb aoB). The following prepositional expression, torb%g=B!, is somewhat ambiguous. If, as I propose, the singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”) in v. 15 (cf. above) refers collectively to the “saving deeds” performed by YHWH, then the plural torB%g+ would simply mean the “mighty (deed)s” of YHWH. The Psalmist comes “with” (B=) tales in hand (in poem and song) of these mighty deeds. Plausibly, the scenario is of the protagonist entering the sacred place of assembly (Temple precincts, etc) with praise of these deeds, ready to declare them publicly. Dahood (II, p. 175) would understand the noun hr*WbG+ as referring to the “mighty (house)” (i.e., the Temple) of God, noting the Semitic (Canaanite) tendency of using plural forms for the names of buildings.

There is a certain chiastic structure to verses 15-16, taken together:

    • “I shall recount your righteousness
      • (I shall announce) all day your saving (deeds)
      • I shall come with (praise of your) mighty deeds
    • I shall make (people) remember your righteousness

*    *    *    *    *    *

It is possible to view verse 17 as marking the start of a distinct unit within Part 2 of the Psalm. The reference to the youth and old age of the Psalmist (vv. 17-18) certainly parallels the theme of units vv. 5-8 and 9-13 of Part 1 (cf. above). Thematically, I would divide Part 2 as follows:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

Verses 17-24 will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 70

Psalm 70

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is essentially identical with Psalm 40:14-18 [13-17], discussed in an earlier study. The points of difference are noted below. The existence of Psalm 70 provides confirmation for scholars who hold that vv. 14-18 of Ps 40 originally constituted a separate Psalm. We are apparently dealing with two versions of the same basic poem. On its own, this poem is a lament, containing a plea/prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The meter is irregular.

The superscription simply marks this as another composition “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 38; and note the use of the verb rk^z` in the opening lines of Pss 132 and 137.

Verse 2 [1]

“(Rush, O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. It is nearly identical with Ps 40:14[13], the two differences being: (1) use of <yh!l)a$ in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the first line, and (2) the initial verb (hxr) is missing. The parallel with Ps 40, along with the irregular meter (2+3) of the couplet as it currently stands, strongly suggests that a comparable verb (imperative) has dropped out. In discussing 40:14 (cf. the earlier study), I mentioned that I had followed Dahood (I, p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

If the MT of verse 2 is correct, then it must be regarded as a rhythmically irregular couplet (though with identical numbers of syllables in each line [8+8]); it could be translated as follows:

“(O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away),
YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

Dahood (II, p. 168) would parse yn]l@yX!hl= as a Hiphil imperative form with an emphatic –l; the first line would then read: “(O) Mightiest, snatch me (away)!”. The use of the general title <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm, “Mightiest,” i.e., ‘God’) in place of the Divine name (hwhy) is typical of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms we have been studying.

Verse 3 [2]

“May they feel shame and humiliation,
(those) seeking (after) my soul!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

Again, this verse is very close to that of Psalm 40 (v. 15 [14]), cf. the earlier study; the second couplet is identical, while there is an extra word at the end of each in the first couplet of Ps 40 (yielding a 3+3 rather than 2+2 couplet):

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one [dj^y~],
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away) [Ht*oPs=l!]!”

Here we have familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him)—in this sense, of course, “my evil” means “evil done (or intended) against me”. This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close here).

Verse 4 [3]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying (to me), ‘Aha, aha!'”

The second line of Ps 40:16[15] contains an additional word (yl!, “to me”, indicated in parentheses above), but is otherwise identical. The shorter second line of v. 4 here results in a tighter couplet, with a more precise 3-beat rhythm, though metrically there is not much difference between the two versions.

The wish of v. 3 [2] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21). For a slightly different explanation of bqu (with a different vocalization), cf. Dahood, II, p. 168.

Verse 5 [4]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Ps 40:17[16] is identical, accept for the final noun, which in Ps 40 is hu*WvT= rather than the related hu*Wvy+, the two words essentially being byforms with identical meaning.

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 3 [2] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous.

Verse 6 [5]

“And (yet) I (am) oppressed and needy,
(O) Mightiest, (come) hurry to me!
You (are) my help and my escaping—
(O) YHWH, do not stay behind!”

Compared with the parallel in Ps 40:18[17], there is a more consistent parallelism in the couplets here, taking the form of an urgent plea to YHWH (matching that of v. 2 at the opening of the Psalm). The points of difference are indicated in italics above, as well as, correspondingly, here for Ps 40:

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*), and this pairing occurs numerous times in the Psalms—35:10; 37:14; 72:4, 12; 74:21; 86:1; 109:16, 22; 140:13; and cf. also on 69:33-34 (in the previous study). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “O YHWH, do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens him.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).